Craig Owen says it’s hard work balancing commitments to Army Reserves and his chosen profession. But, the AECOM transportation structures engineer says there are advantages to having a foot in both the military and civilian worlds.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Birmingham, went to university in Coventry, then moved to Bedford for the AECOM job. I joined AECOM in 2013, so I’ve been with them for three years now. And I’m on the graduate scheme, which was three years, so that’s coming an end now.
How did you get into engineering?
I suppose at school I really liked maths, science and physics-based subjects, and took them through to A levels, because it was what I enjoyed, and what I was good at.
I looked at studying engineering because the job prospects are quite good, and also it’s quite a varied role. And it’s possible to have quite an impact on the world: even if you’re working on small scale, you still have a large influence.
What’s the biggest project you’ve worked on?
One of the biggest projects, the Brent Cross development, in north London. I chose some of the bridge designs and materials we were going to use. So it’s quite nice to think when that’s constructed there will be a corner of London that I’ve had an influence on that will be there for a very long time.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment, I’m actually based on a construction site. It’s the A45/A46 Tollbar End Improvement scheme. I’m usually design-based, in an office, but I’m out here to see things being built. It’s a large Highways England scheme in Coventry, and I’m there as part of the technical assurance role – we represent the client on site.
How did you get into the Army reserves?
I joined about two years ago now. I’d always had a bit of an interest. After university I looked into the reservists, and saw there was a special infrastructure engineering unit, and that was what sold it for me. Because I get to use my skills I’ve got as a civilian, in the army. But then also I’ll learn things that are useful for my job. That’s the real big draw for me: as an engineer, the more things you experience and projects you see, the more you learn, so I guess it’s an advantage.
How does the reservists work?
Everybody in the army has to gain a basic set of soldier skills that you do through your basic training then you go into your unit for your special role.
How was the basic training? Are you a fit guy already?
It was harder than I thought. But it forces you to stay fit, that’s why I like army. I played a lot of sport at university, and this is now a good motivation to keep my fitness.
And how does the ‘special army infrastructure engineers unit’ work?
I’m part of the STRE, it’s a Specialist Team of Royal Engineers, we’re a team of about 30 engineers and we work on different projects for the army. Each year we have a two week annual camp and last year we travelled to Ascension Island. It’s in the mid-Atlantic with only about 800 occupants. Civilians aren’t normally travelling through there – it’s mostly just for military and contractors. But it’s on a volcanic island, in the middle of nowhere – it was an amazing opportunity to work there.
What sort of army infrastructure are you working on?
There’s quite a variety. [On Ascension Island] I did a conditions survey and an options study of a disused building, because they were investigating what to do with it. They needed new accommodation and they weren’t sure if they could use it, or have to build new.
We were advising the senior officers as to what their options were, and, similar to a civilian options study, we were giving things like pricing, risks, things like that. I looked at the structure, while an electrical engineer looks at the utilities, an architect looked at the layout plans, etc.
What are the differences between working for the army and industry?
The army can be quite high pressure. The way people communicate and the way you receive feedback is a bit different. Normally in a consultancy the feedback is quiet and careful, while in the army the feedback you get is more blunt, and they’ll tell you exactly what you’re not getting right.
And there’s a different approach to the engineering as well – it’s all about getting it done quickly, and a bit less precise. It’s better to deliver something on time, 80% done, than go past deadline but be 100% complete. As a civilian it’s all about delivering for a client, whereas in the army you have a deadline and you’ve just got to give it what you’ve got.
Can you give us an example of what it’s like?
When we did the condition survey in Ascension Island, we flew overnight, a 7 hour flight, got off the flight and went straight into a briefing on what we’ll be doing, and then straight to inspection. So we didn’t even get to take our bags to our accommodation. And we had to deliver the report the next day. So you could say it’s a little different – the timescales are a lot tighter than in the civilian world.
You’ll get a report to somebody – not for them to ‘think about’ but to make a decision, based on the report, right there and then. So it did surprise me somewhat, how much extra pressure there is. It means when I come back to my other job I can deal with the pressure better, be a little bit more level headed about it.
What are the demands on your time from the army?
Speaking about my specialist unit, there’s only one in the country and they recruit from all over. I have to commit 19 days a year, that’s through a two-week course, about 16 days, then a couple of weekends, but you can do more if you want. But it helps that Aecom gives me 15 days, three working weeks, on top of our annual leave, so I can meet my training commitments without eating into my annual leave. (Note: Owen coordinated AECOM’s entry for the the Ministry of Defence’s Employer Recognition Scheme Gold Award, which aims to recognise employers for support and commitment to UK defence personnel.)
I’ve been in the soldier role for a few years, as an introduction, but the officer role will require a bit more commitment. It will see me taking on a bit more of a leadership. It’s a lot more challenging in all respects and it will help me in my career as a civil engineer as well. As a young officer in a normal posting you take command of about 30 soldiers, so it’s a lot of responsibility for somebody at the start of their career.
Is it hard to juggle the two different roles?
The time off definitely helps. I wouldn’t call it hard to juggle – it’s hard work. So on a Friday afternoon I go home, grab my bag, and then drive up to wherever we might be in the country and I won’t be back until Sunday evening, then I’ll be back at work on the Monday. It can be quite hard work, but I’ve planned the balance not too bad.
The army are good at recognising it: they tell you your first priority should be your family, then your job, then the army. If there’s something to compromise it’s the army, in terms of your livelihood and life balance.
So… if we go to war, you’re ready to step up?
I guess as a reservist, your name’s on the list. But all those reservists that went to Afghanistan, they volunteered to go. So they put up a list and ask who wants to go first. However, if there is an urgent need, and parliament passes the act, they can mobilise all the reservists. So you are signing up to that liability, but it wouldn’t be common-place.
What’s in store for the future?
Once the officer training is complete, which should hopefully be at the end of September, I might go more into a regular role, but I’ll continue on with it.
I realise my role at AECOM might become a little more demanding. But because the army’s something I enjoy, I think it’s something I’ll be able to do throughout my career.
I’m progressing through my chartered professional review with the ICE, and hope to be complete with that next year.
And from officer training I’ll gain project management qualifications as well, which would be recognised in the civilian industry.
The main thing for me, is I feel like I’ve got two parallel careers. If one gets stale or monotonous, the other is always there. And also, the more things I come across, the better I’ll be at the other job